Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Athanasius, “Mighty in the Word”

Oh, you wanted more on yesterday’s theme?

That’s a relief; I thought you’d never ask.

After sketching some aspects of Athanasius’ character, Gregory goes on to say:

On these grounds, as I have said, I leave others, who have leisure to admire the minor details of his character, to admire and extol him. I call them minor details only in comparing him and his character with his own standard, for that which has been made glorious has not been made glorious, even though it be exceeding splendid by reason of the glory that surpasses, as we are told; for indeed the minor points of his excellence would suffice to win celebrity for others. But since it would be intolerable for me to leave the word and serve less important details, I must turn to that which is his chief characteristic; and God alone, on Whose behalf I am speaking, can enable me to say anything worthy of a soul so noble and so mighty in the word.

“Might in the Word” was, for Gregory, Athanasius’ most important quality. This description helps us to specify what kind of conflict was afoot in the fourth century: a conflict in large part over fidelity to God’s revelation of himself in Holy Scripture. But didn’t both sides claim to be faithful to the Word? Didn’t both have their proof-texts? Well, yes. So? All one can conclude from that is that Scripture provided the common field on which the battle would be joined, the issue around which the argument must center. (It goes without saying at this point that revelation was therefore in the nature of the case considered perspicuous enough to be argued about, and sufficient enough to provide materials for the argument’s resolution.)

Thus Gregory characterizes Arius in the following way:

The beginning of this madness was Arius (whose name is derived from frenzy ), who paid the penalty of his unbridled tongue by his death in a profane spot, brought about by prayer not by disease, when he like Judas burst asunder for his similar treachery to the Word. Then others, catching the infection, organized an art of impiety, and, confining Deity to the Unbegotten, expelled from Deity not only the Begotten, but also the Proceeding one, and honoured the Trinity with communion in name alone, or even refused to retain this for it. (Oration 21.13)

Of what was Arius guilty? “Treachery to the Word.” There is a delightful wordplay here: Arius taught against the grain of Scripture, and he did so precisely as it touched upon the status of the Word, the Son of God. Athanasius, however, would not yield:

Not so that blessed one, Who was indeed a man of God and a mighty trumpet of truth: but being aware that to contract the Three Persons to a numerical Unity is heretical, and the innovation of Sabellius, who first devised a contraction of Deity; and that to sever the Three Persons by a distinction of nature, is an unnatural mutilation of Deity; he both happily preserved the Unity, which belongs to the Godhead, and religiously taught the Trinity, which refers to Personality, neither confounding the Three Persons in the Unity, nor dividing the Substance among the Three Persons, but abiding within the bounds of piety, by avoiding excessive inclination or opposition to either side. (Oration 21.13)

This dispute led to the Council of Nicea, in which, according to Gregory’s version, Athanasius played the hero:

And therefore, first in the holy Synod of Nicæa, the gathering of the three hundred and eighteen chosen men, united by the Holy Ghost, as far as in him lay, he stayed the disease. Though not yet ranked among the Bishops, he held the first rank among the members of the Council, for preference was given to virtue just as much as to office. Afterwards, when the flame had been fanned by the blasts of the evil one, and had spread very widely (hence came the tragedies of which almost the whole earth and sea are full), the fight raged fiercely around him who was the noble champion of the Word. For the assault is hottest upon the point of resistance, while various dangers surround it on every side: for impiety is skilful in designing evils, and excessively daring in taking them in hand: and how would they spare men, who had not spared the Godhead? (Oration 21.14)

I’m not interested at the moment in the historicity of Gregory’s account (with respect, e.g., to the number of bishops present–not coincidentally the same as the number of Abraham’s “trained men” used in the rescue of Lot in Genesis 14–or the role Athanasius actually played at the Council), but in his assumptions: (1) office is not everything, and not even close to everything, for Athanasius’ piety gave him the right to be heard just as much as those superior to him in rank, and indeed to promote him to their chief even without official standing; and (2) the reason for his polarizing effect–he was “the noble champion of the Word” (with the same ambiguity as above). In Gregory’s view, Athanasius’ efforts were significant because they vindicated the true teaching of the Word, which, as we have already seen, must be maintained by those who would exercise authority; and which, moreover, confers authority–the authority of truth–on those who do so.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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